Military history

TIM BISHOP

One Young Soldier

Recruit training, Life Guards, pre-war

The rank and file of most European armies have always contained some better-educated recruits, who are known in the British army as ‘gentleman rankers’. One such was Tim Bishop, the son of an officer, who, on failing to gain a place at Sandhurst, the British military college for future officers of the infantry and cavalry, enlisted in 1934 as a private soldier (trooper) in the Life Guards. The Life Guards, which forms with the Royal Horse Guards the Household Cavalry, is the senior regiment of cavalry in the army and has a direct relationship with the sovereign.

Ceremonially uniformed in scarlet tunics, with black thigh boots, burnished steel breastplates and tall plumed helmets, and mounted on black horses, they escorted the king on state occasions and mounted a daily guard in Whitehall, the London thoroughfare on which the principal government offices stand. Much of a recruit’s day was spent cleaning stables, grooming his horse to a high gloss and cleaning his uniform and accoutrements to agleaming finish. Life Guards troopers, unlike those in Reiterregiment 6 that Stahlberg joined, were not expected to understand military law or the duty of the soldier to political authority. Such matters would have been thought dangerously abstract by the troopers’ sergeants and officers. The object of recruit training in the Life Guards and all other British cavalry regiments before the Second World War was to produce a perfectly turned-out soldier who could ride, care for his horse, perform mounted drills and obey orders without question. Tim Bishop, who later became an officer in the 12th Lancers, perfectly conveys the atmosphere of the narrow world in which such recruits were raised.

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Now, however, we were but the rawest recruits, who had not yet even drawn canvas dungarees in which to work in the stables. Smart uniforms, guards, escorts, ‘box’-horses [for ceremonial guard] and stick orderlies [senior officers’ messengers] were a world away and a hard world at that. A Foot Guardsman joined for three years with the colours and it was said that it took those three years to produce him fully trained. We joined for eight (and four on the Reserve) and our recruits’ course alone would take a year. In other words we had let ourselves in for twelve years, but, thanks to the war, I was leading a squadron of 12th Royal Lancers within ten years. However, to my disappointment, it was not a gleaming sword but a much-used broom which I was handed (or had hurled at my back) in the half light of the following dawn. Thereafter I spent much time learning by experience the truth within the local jest: ‘Join the Army and see the world. Join the Life Guards and sweep it.’ But with nearly four hundred horses on the strength, almost non-stop sweeping was essential to keep the place like a new pin. And like a new pin did we keep it.

Several things took a bit of understanding. First, perhaps, the shouting of the NCOs at Reveille: ‘Rise and shine, bed in line etc. etc. The sun is burnin’ your bleedin’ eye-ball’; and this on a pitch dark and freezing morning in January. Then there was the unofficial but total and dreadful ban on the wearing of pyjamas — that and having to share ‘ablution’ facilities. In that society it would have been as wrong to wear them as would be a top hat and cut-away coat out cub-hunting. The shirt and underclothes worn during the day were the recognized form of night attire and that was indisputably that. And it is nearly true that you can get used to anything in time. One was usually so tired that it did not matter much anyway. Secondly, the mucking out of stable which followed at 6.30 a.m. using only the bare hands. No stable implements were permitted young soldiers. Nor was so much as a wisp of straw wasted. Bedding that would have been thrown out of a civilian stable was carried, in warm, sticky, ammonia-scented and ton-weight armfuls, to be dumped in the yard (in bad weather under the lean-to sheds) to be spread to dry by ‘old’ soldiers with forks. It was carried in again, lighter and less pungent, at evening stables. Meanwhile these were swilled out until the last hay-seed was washed away. Breakfast could have been eaten off the floor. And when wisps [for rubbing down horses] were made for use at evening stables you made them from this used bedding, never from hay or clean straw. Thirdly, the method employed for removal of grease from new leather spur-straps (the type used for swan-necked spurs and jackboots). They were simply dropped into the urinal and left to lie there for a matter of days. They were then fished out, washed, dried — and, with considerable ‘elbow-grease’ — at last worked up to a fine polish. Fourthly, the shaving with cold water. One got used to that, too, but the Royal Navy complained bitterly and not really surprisingly when some of its members stayed with us at Windsor for a royal funeral. I was orderly corporal at the time and in the end just had to arrange for hot water from the cook-house to be taken up to them, ‘in case,’ as I explained to my indignant comrades-in-arms, ‘we have another Invergordon!’ [The naval protest against pay reductions in 1931.]

Fifthly, the food. A slab of yellow, soap-like cheese and one large white and pungent slice of raw onion was quite frequently the last meal of the day — unless, of course, you had sufficient private means to buy your own supper in the canteen later on. Very few had. And a breakfast of bacon smothered in fried onions could surely stymie the hungriest. Sixthly, having to wear ankle boots with nailed soles. In order to get about the stables and yard one adopted a sort of ostler’s trot, but at first it was like working on ice. It did make life doubly difficult. The boots of, for instance, Corporal of Horse Wheatley had rubber soles. No doubt he had specific permission. But why did not we all? A quiet, hyper-efficient N CO, his approach was not only sure but silent, keeping the soldiers in his troop on their (steel-plated) toes, wide awake and alert. Seventhly, being constantly taken to task in no uncertain manner for something that could not possibly by any stretch of the imagination be your fault (such as being hauled over the coals because your horse’s feet had gone away from under him on the tarmac and given you a crashing fall!).

Eighthly, trying to obey the orders of NCOs who might have been talking Chinese, Russian or Arabic until you got the hang of it. Very early in my Army career I understood the guard commander to tell me to ‘nibble the apples for a rhyme in Whaddon Woods’. Rapped out sharply, this strange command had the green listener at a disadvantage, yet to look baffled or to hesitate thereabouts, simply did not do. ‘Corporal!’ you shouted — and made yourself scarce, finding as quickly as possible a sympathetic interpreter. (‘He wants you to nip up the stairs [apples and pears, Cockney rhyming slang] to the canteen for a cheese roll [a rhymer], a bun [a wad] and a packet of Woodbine cigarettes.’) Like so many things, easy when you know how. The Life Guards had a language of their own and it was as well to learn it with all dispatch. For instance, the order to ‘Get a rift on that chain’. To polish your horse’s collar-chain you first dropped it in the gutter of your horse’s stall and rubbed it about with your foot. You then picked it up, washed and dried it by rubbing it vigorously on the top of an unopened bale of straw. When it was dry, you put it into a sack which you had previously filled with shredded paper or clean straw. You then shook and tossed the sack until you had got a rift on the chain, a rift meaning, I suppose, the required sparkle.

Again, if someone was described as ‘ticking’ or ‘bobbery’ it meant that he was angry. And if an N CO warned you that you would be ‘First relief chicks’, he meant that your sentry duty would be carried out under the arches either side of the stables’ entrance into the Horse Guards. This was officially known as ‘Over the Arms’, but unofficially as ‘The Chicken Run’ and was where the least smart members of the guard were posted. Initially, like so much else, it all called desperately for interpretation. A rifle was a ‘bandook’, ‘browned off’ was fed up, ‘gippo’ was gravy and ‘duff’ was pudding. The fair sex were ‘cows’.

‘Where is your Tom Clark?’ was another question that could leave the raw recruit silent. A Tom Clark was a stable rubber dipped into a bucket of water and then wrung out as dry as possible. Put to immediate use it was a wonderful thing with which to lay the dust on the surface of a horse’s coat just before showing him out to an NCO after grooming.

But it did seem to me as time went by that things were made as arduous and uncomfortable as was humanly, or inhumanely, possible. The times for recruits’ parades were so arranged that it was impossible, for instance, to be dismissed from one riding school, turn in your horse, change your clothes and present yourself punctually and properly turned out for the next — perhaps the square (meaning drill with or without swords or rifles) — unless, that is, you went without breakfast. By missing this meal, however, we managed to do it and thereby, I suppose, learned over and over again that it is possible to achieve the impossible. A recruit received much the same treatment as does a tennis ball during a prolonged rally. The Inspector-General of Cavalry said of recruits in the 1890s that they ‘hardly had time to eat their dinners’. Forty years later, neither had we.

Anyway, I never suffered such discomfort or was so rushed, even during six years of war. Perhaps anyone bothering to read this might think ‘What did the fool expect?’ Well, the fool expected what he got, though there is a difference between what you expect and the actual experiencing of it. But the fool was comforted in the knowledge, even then, that the happiest regiments are the best disciplined.

But to this day I still consider it pretty mean of the War Department of those times to expect soldiers, who were daily supposed to represent all that was smartest in the British Army and whom tourists from all over the world travelled miles to see, to wash and shave in cold water. However, one cannot deny that the general policy was one that worked. If you have a lot of young men who, because they are young men, are fairly pleased with themselves, you have to give them ‘a bit of stick’ or discipline suffers. For pleased with ourselves we must have been to have wanted to don a uniform that was going to take so much wearing and looking after (we had, for a start, got two different cap badges, let alone swords), and [to have wanted to ride] a horse that also had to be looked after and never left because, always stabled, it was incapable of looking after itself. ‘Il faut souffrir pour être beau?’ Suffer we assuredly did. Hell was most generously dispensed.

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